This is an anecdote about Albert Einstein told to me in 1975 by Ralph Osborne at a Faith at Work retreat in Brandon, Man. Ralph had heard the story directly from his good friend Bruce Larson.
When Bruce was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, he lived in a campus residence with shared washroom facilities in the basement. It happened that one year when Einstein was lecturing at Princeton University, he was billeted in a seminary dorm room in the same building where Larson lived.
One morning as Bruce stepped out of the shower, he saw the great scientist standing at a mirror scraping at his dry face with a razor, not a drop of water in the sink or daub of shaving cream on his cheek or chin. As Bruce began lathering his own face at a nearby sink, he noticed in the mirror that Einstein kept gawking at him, and after he’d shaved a while Einstein asked, “What is that?”
Bruce said it was a product to help make shaving easier by preventing cuts and bleeding.
Einstein was astounded. He had never heard of such a thing, and asked whether he might try some. Bruce of course was thrilled to oblige — when had a seminary student ever taught a genius something so useful? Einstein clucked and wondered aloud at how smooth his shaving had become, and said he’d certainly have to go right out and buy some of this cream for himself.
Bruce’s pride was short-lived. Only a few mornings later when he entered the bathroom again, there was Einstein at his sink scraping away as usual at his beard on a bone-dry face.
I imagine that Albert Einstein at his sink was probably more entranced than entrenched, rapt in a mathematically luminous realm where hardly a dozen other people in the world could fathom what he was trying to say. If you and I only lived in such rarefied atmospheres, maybe our habits would be more benign than the others we habitually forswear when the New Year dawns. Often our observances are marked by resolutions to change certain things, to turn over a new leaf with the turning of the year. We have such sturdy resolves, and alas our willpower is so feeble. Old habits and thought patterns remain as obtuse as ever, our dogmas reassert themselves and darken further whatever light was meant to shine through them, especially on bleak January days.
Still, although it was a lowly seminarian who showed genius the way, I keep wondering why it would have been so hard to go to the corner store for a tube of shaving cream and make life that much smoother.
Ratzlaff is the author of two books of literary non-fiction, The Crow Who Tampered With Time and Backwater Mystic Blues. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.